Most willow species thrive close to water or in damp places and a lot of willow folklore reflects this watery theme. The Moon too recurs as an association, the movement of water being affected by the Moon. In Scotland it was believed that harvesting willow during the waning Moon lowered the quality of the wood.
Hecate was a powerful Greek goddess of the Underworld. She was linked to the Moon and willow, and taught sorcery and witchcraft. Helice (meaning ‘willow’) was Zeus’s nurse, and was also associated with water. Her priestesses used willow in their water magic and witchcraft. The willow muse was called Heliconian (after Helice) and was sacred to poets.
The Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. Apollo gave him a lyre, and it is interesting to note that harps (including the Highland harp) were often carved from willow.
The Gaelic word for willow is seileach. This features in place names such as Achnashellach in Ross-shire, Glensuileag in Inverness-shire and Corrieshalloch on Speyside. These names would have referred to both the presence of willow and its related industries. Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow also has connections with this tree. Saugh is Scots for willow and haugh is a boggy meadow. Charles Rennie Mackintosh named his Willow Tea-room as a nod to this association.
Willow regrows with vigour when it is cut back and can grow several feet in a season. It also grows well if you push a healthy cutting into the soil (even if it is upside down!). These properties came to symbolise renewal, vitality and immortality in China and elsewhere.
In Britain the more recent, ‘Christianised’ use of willow to symbolise grief originated with Psalm 137:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps.’
These ‘willow trees’ were probably Euphrates poplar and not weeping willow, which originated in China.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the association became particular to grief suffered by forsaken lovers. They also adopted the custom of wearing a cap or crown made of willow twigs and leaves. By the 19th century illustrations of weeping willows often appeared as ornaments on gravestones and mourning cards. Willow boughs were also used to decorate British churches on Palm Sunday instead of palm leaves. In Scotland people made a 3 ply cord from the wool of the catkins as protection against unseen forces.
Willow has a wide range of uses and a long relationship with humans. Country folk have been familiar with the healing properties of willow for a long time. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers. They also used it to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism.
Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early nineteenth century scientists isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid. This compound is also found in the meadowsweet plant. From this the world’s first synthetic drug, acetylasylic acid, was developed. It was marketed as Aspirin, named after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria.
Beavers also eat a lot of willow and so salicylic acid becomes concentrated in glands near the base of their tails. The substance in the glands is called castoreum and was prized as medicine. People hunted beavers to extinction in many places partly because castoreum was so sought after.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors made shelters with bent willow frames as well as dugout boats and coracles. It has also been used for house building, charcoal manufacture and more.
Willow’s ability to absorb shock without splintering is why it is still to make cricket bats and stumps. The Dutch traditionally make their clogs from willow wood and the Celts made their chariot wheel spokes from it. Gypsies also used willow to make their clothes pegs. People used the bark to make a reddish-brown dye, for tanning leather and as fodder for livestock.
The bark is fibrous and pliable – ideal for making rope. On the Outer Hebrides people made anchor ropes from willow bark. Highlanders also used bark strips to tie down thatch on roofs and it has even been used to make cloth!
Willow is well-known for its use in making wicker. This involves weaving stems to create all sorts of useful items. Before the advent of plastics, willow was widely used to make a variety of containers. These included baskets, coffins, lobster pots (creels) and beehives. A 6th century willow basket from Shetland showed the same weaving techniques as those practiced today.
Willow weaving is enjoying a resurgence. Willow is an environmentally friendly material as well as being beautiful to look at. Basketmaking is becoming popular once again and willow coffins are often used in green burials. It is being applied to novel situations such as landscape sculptures, outdoor seating and children’s play huts. These are made from live cuttings, grown in situ, to be woven and sculpted into living structures. It is also made into spiling to reinforce river banks. It is heartening to see that our ancient relationship with this tree continues to thrive.
- Darwin, T. (1996) The Scots Herbal: the plant lore of Scotland. Mercat Press.
- Fife H. (1994) Warriors and Guardians: native highland trees. Argyll Publishing.
- Frazer, J. (1993) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Wordsworth.
- Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson: London.
- Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
- Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
- Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.